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Latin American Cultural Differences, A Survey
By Jamie Gelbtuch
The stereotypes abound: fiestas, siestas, and mañana. Searching for information on the cultural differences among the twelve countries of South America is a surprisingly challenging task. Culture is complex. What we see on the surface–language, clothing, appearance, celebrations, art, or architecture–is a reflection of deeper, underlying forces–history, geography, religion, values, attitudes, beliefs–that shape a country and its people. All of these ingredients and more make up a culture, but without a greater understanding of dynamics, we are left to wonder about the validity of our perceptions and stereotypes.
Last year, Cultural Mixology recently surveyed 250 natives from six countries in Latin America to get an insider’s view on language, influences and perceptions, regional differences, values, punctuality, and food. As one anonymous respondent aptly pointed out, “Those outside Latin America perceive all Latin American countries equally; they can’t distinguish whether they are from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, etc.” The results of this survey can help us better understand what makes each country in South America so unique.
Here they are:
When asking Brazilians about how they are perceived there was a big emphasis on internal diversity. One respondent stated, “…there are seven countries in one.” Fifty-eight percent of Brazilians said that regional differences were best seen between the north and south of the country, and were mainly based on education, politics, and physical appearance. When asked about how others perceive their culture, the most common responses were mixed, diverse, informal, European, and having North and South American influences. While words like happy and humour came up repeatedly in the top five values, Brazilians surveyed also called attention to the idea that, “People think Brazil is a huge party and a big mess; very focused on Carnival.” Many respondents cautioned that a love for soccer, samba, and Carnival means neither that Brazilians are carefree nor that those things apply to an entire culture.
Argentines talked about perceptions by focusing largely on issues of identity, both internally and externally. Two thirds of respondents said that differences in Argentina are best seen between the capital, Buenos Aires, and all other areas and are primarily reflected in ways of speaking, immigrant influence, and economic development. While one respondent said that Argentina is very centralized and “…a country represented culturally, politically, and socially by its capital…” Argentines were also very cognisant of external perceptions and the fact that Argentina is “perceived differently in relation to the rest of Latin America.” Strong European influences and immigration patterns that are reflected in lighter skin colours than other countries in the region with greater indigenous populations were linked to the perception that Argentines “…are not true Hispanics.” Words such assuperior, distinct and egotistical were the most common.
Chileans approached the question of perceptions with a strong emphasis on character. Similar to the way Argentines viewed regional differences, 71% of Chilean respondents indicated that differences in Chile are mostly between the capital, Santiago, and all other areas. “Everything happens in Santiago.” Differences were linked to time (Santiago was viewed as more fast-paced with tighter work schedules versus free time), resources (presence and availability of hospitals, businesses, banks, and universities), and general development and opportunity. Chileans used words such as conservative, cold, reserved, and serious, to talk about how they feel their culture is perceived. At the same time, there was an emphasis on Chile’s progressive and successful economy (it ranks highest of all Latin American countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index for 2011-2012 and #31 globally), and the friendly, supportive, and caring nature of people.
In Colombia, respondents viewed the culture as segregated. Regional differences were divided according to major cities, such as Bogotá, Barranquilla, Calí, and Medellín, and seen most starkly in ways of speaking, cultural traditions, physical appearance, and economic situation. One person commented that Colombians are perceived as “…serious and cold if they are from Bogotá, partiers if they are from the coast.” Words such as welcoming,friendly, happy, and culturally rich were contrasted with dangerous, drug dealers, cocaine, and corruption when describing perceptions. A recent Colombian tourism campaign slogan shows the country’s acute awareness of this gap: “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay / Colombia, el riesgo es quererse quedar”.
What Outsiders Don’t Know
When asked what outsiders don’t know about Brazil, much of the focus shifted to business. Responses included the fact that there are many large, private high-technology companies in the country, that Brazilians can be skilled negotiators, and that first names can be common in business meetings, an important difference from other South American countries such as Colombia or Chile where a higher degree of formality prevails.
Argentine respondents continued with the theme of identity influences when asked this question. They talked about the importance of the gauchos (and traditions of cooking asado, which is directly linked to gaucho customs), the Italian influence on culture (almost half of the population are estimated to have ties to Italian descent), and the effects of European roots on the people. One person noted, “So-called ‘Latin-culture’ is closer to Central America or the north of South America than Argentinean. Our culture is closer to European culture, as well as the architecture, the progressive spirit of people, etc.”
One common theme in Chileans’ answers to this question was around society. As one person commented, “It seems like a pretty open society, however it isn’t.” Chileans, similar to Argentines, frequently remarked that Chile is more like the US and Europe than other countries in Latin America. There was an emphasis on the level of education and knowledge of arts and literature that distinguishes their country from others in the region. Another frequent comment Chileans made was related to language and expressions particular to Chilean Spanish, many of which are derived from the influence of the native indigenous languages Quechua and Mapudungun.
Colombians felt that mostly what outsiders don’t know is everything that is not related to drugs and violence. For example, Colombia produces flowers and emeralds. Colombians are very entrepreneurial. It is the birthplace of the Lasik eye surgery technique and the pacemaker. Geographically speaking, “Many do not know there are three satellite islands in the Caribbean Sea (San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina) that belong to Colombia.”
Mañana has been jokingly defined as “anytime between tomorrow and never.” Despite common labels of the region having a mañana culture, many do not take into account the role that context plays.
When it comes to social functions, it would almost be considered rude to arrive on time as your host or hostess will likely not be ready. Distinctions must be made between functions that revolve around a meal (30 minutes late as a general rule) and those which are simply social gatherings (1-2 hours late as a general rule). Our respondents agreed, with 43% of Argentines, 62% of Colombians, 83% of Chileans and 36% of Brazilians saying it is acceptable to arrive at least 30 minutes late for a social event.
However, work is another story. When asked about arriving on time for work in the morning, 73% of Argentines said it was expected to arrive to work no more than 10 minutes late; 71% of Colombians, 66% of Chileans and 63% of Brazilians said the same.
When cultural patterns are only slightly different, as is often the case with countries within a region such as Latin America, it can be harder to see the variations than when comparing countries that are more obviously distinct. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that shared language equals shared values equals shared behaviours. Understanding how insiders view the region’s countries as distinct rather than how outsiders view the region as a whole is a critical factor for success.
Be respectful of countries individually, know something about where you are working or travelling and show an interest in the geography, history, politics, and economics that have combined to make them the way that they are today. In short, culture matters, we can’t deny it.
Jamie B. Gelbtuch, MBA, PMP, is founder and principal consultant of Cultural Mixology, which designs, delivers and facilitates cross-cultural and language training programs in academic, business and expatriate environments. She is fluent in English, Spanish and French, with a working knowledge of Portuguese. She has particular expertise in working with Latin American cultures and French-speaking countries. For questions, comments, or feedback, please contact Ms. Gelbtuch.
Special thanks to Lauren Amaio, Consultant at Cultural Mixology, for her support and work on this survey’s design, production, and analysis. Lauren is a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut, with a major in Communications and minor in Spanish.